Desperate government risks contempt charge on miserable deal

by Luke Lythgoe | 03.12.2018

The government is now so desperate to avoid publishing the legal advice on the prime minister’s Brexit deal it is willing to risk being held in contempt of Parliament.

But even the government-written “legal position” paper seems to spell out what everyone thought Number 10 wanted to keep vague: that the UK could find itself stuck in the Irish border backstop indefinitely.

The backstop is an insurance policy to keep the Irish border open, regardless of where the chaotic Brexit talks head next.

It is essential for peace in Northern Ireland, but miserable for the UK as a whole. It sees us stuck in a bare-bones customs union, which could give the 88 countries that the EU trades with access to our market without us getting access to theirs.

We would also follow EU rules on social rights, environmental standards, state aid, tax and more, all without a say on how those rules were shaped.

The key part of the legal position is quite clear: the backstop “will continue to apply unless and until it is superseded, in whole or in part, by a subsequent agreement establishing alternative arrangements”.

The government’s document goes on to say it is the “intention” that a new arrangement will supersede the backstop before it is triggered, and that if it does come into effect “it should do so only temporarily”.

But this desire is problematic in itself because it creates a mad dash to get an ambitious new trade deal in place before the end of the transition period in December 2020. That’s impossible unless the UK caves to all the EU’s demands – which it would have to do because British politicians would be so keen to avoid the backstop.

The other option is to extend the transition period, but again the EU holds all the cards because the alternative is the backstop trap.

When the government’s preferred document is so damning, it makes you wonder what’s in the original legal advice. After all, Labour are threatening loudly to bring contempt of Parliament proceedings to bear. One Labour source told journalists that the legal position paper “falls short of what parliament decided” and should be published. The source adds the view that ministers are treading on “very thin ice”.

There’s some bigger-picture stuff at play here too. Any vote on whether the government is in contempt of Parliament will look a lot like a dry run for the “meaningful vote” on May’s deal, scheduled for next Tuesday. Expect those Tories loyal to the PM to back the government, but those against the deal – Boris Johnson, for instance – to demand the full advice be published.

Getting a clearer idea of how big a rebellion May should expect on her deal could shape government decisions in the coming days. The Sun today even ran a story suggesting the meaningful vote may be pulled entirely, with the prime minister returning to Brussels to try and get more concessions – thus being able to claim she did her damnedest to get the best deal.

But the real problem here is that, thanks to the backstop and the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit can satisfy no one. Yet there is one option that would avoid a hard border in Ireland without turning the UK into a powerless rule-taker – keeping our current deal in the EU. The best way to achieve that is if MPs push for a People’s Vote, asking the public if they want this dire Brexit after all.

Edited by James Pritchard